What is the definition of trivia? This is the space age. The Information Age. Perhaps the End Times. Our world is one of transient facts, of truth that is stranger than fiction and fiction more gripping than the truth. Who draws the line between the knowledge of the many and the esoterica of the chosen, obsessed few? Maybe it is merely that we have a short memory, as the lessons learned by the fathers are forgotten by the sons, in every generation until the end of time.
Do you remember a show from our parents' era? It had something to do with a boy in a suit jacket, shorts, and tie. And a wristwatch. And the world's mightiest robot. If you don't remember Johnny Sokko, don't feel too depressed. It was a television show from Japan that, like so many of the live-action action programs from the other side of the Pacific, enjoyed a brief cult following in the U.S. and then fell out of favor. There were dark conspiracy, angst, derring-do, and those patented cheesy costumed actors that still haunt our collective image of Japanese entertainment. It was cool and it was outrageous and it was, for some people, even profound.
Maybe, if you like that sort of show, you like Hong Kong movies, too. All those hyper-martial arts, all the gunplay, all the magic and larger-than-life characters... Indeed, except for particulars of the cinematography, the two genres are not very far removed. To be sure, Hong Kong cinema's roots run much deeper than the sci-fi that forms the basis for Johnny. They stretch all the way back to the classics of Chinese literature, stories thousands of years old still regarded as some of the finest writings in history. Perhaps you've heard of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or Heroes of the Marsh. The former has been studied as a metaphor for modern politics. The latter has been made into such things as the video game Suikoden. Look within the pages of these stories, and the volumes of flamboyant, high-powered characters may astound you, still "cool" after all this time.
There was a manga artist in Japan by the name of Yokoyama Mitsuteru who recognized this. His works were already established by the 70s, and a whole generation grew up with stories like Babel II, Mars, and his adaptations of Suikoden (more than 60 volumes worth) and other classic Chinese stories. Imagawa Yasuhiro, the director of Giant Robo, was one of those influenced by these tales, and his realization of the Giant Robo world is a synthesis of these classic characters with post-modern technology to produce a world that speaks to us through both the old and the new.
This bears repetition: Giant Robo is a meeting between the time-honored and the nascent. Many people's first reaction to Giant Robo is that the art is retro, the heroes and villains overly flamboyant, and the technology na´ve. But look more closely. The struggle between good and evil, between light and dark, is nothing unfamiliar. The super powers and super conspiracies speak to our appreciation of the fantastic and the sublime. Many of the characters are transplanted from their original literary setting and added to this tale set in the "impending future", but their striving and their integrity are unchanged, relevant now as they were originally. Those with some knowledge of the classics can even have fun trying to place which characters came from which sources. More about that will follow in future articles.
Giant Robo the Animation -- The Day the Earth Stood Still is the penultimate chapter in a very large story in the mind of Director Imagawa. As such, there is much in the way of backstory that will not be readily apparent. Those eager to find more information to this show can visit http://psy-s.cjas.org/~mneideng/trans/giantrobo/ to see my translations of the liner notes for the original Japanese LD releases. The most important thing to know about episode 1, and indeed the whole series, is this: Giant Robo is first and foremost a story about growing up. What experiences Kusama Daisaku, the erstwhile Johnny and controller of Giant Robo, has, and how they affect his growth, are the main focus of the series. Keep this in mind as you watch events unfold, and I think you will have a good shot at enjoying the series as much as I do.
By the way, Imagawa requisitioned a few guest animators from a certain well-known studio for the making of GR 1. Their names are Matsuo Akikazu, Maeda Mahiro, and Anno Hideaki, whose television series Nadia of the Mysterious Seas had just completed its first run in Japan.